How to Read an Act of the UK Parliament

Translators and legal professionals often have to deal with original sources and searching for a quote from UK legislation may at first be confusing to the uninitiated. The text of all acts of Parliament are available from two main sources, the “Official home of UK legislation, revised and as enacted 1267-present” at, and the British and Irish Legal Information Institute (BAILII) at . As an example, let’s look at the primary source of UK company law, the Companies Act 2006 ( to see how it’s organized.

Under the Crown Seal the first thing that appears is the law’s short title, “Companies Act 2006” with its official citation underneath. Here “2006 CHAPTER 46” indicates that this was the 46th act passed by Parliament in 2006. There follows the act’s long title, which is really a description of the purpose of the law:

 An Act to reform company law and restate the greater part of the enactments relating to companies; to make other provision relating to companies and other forms of business organisation; to make provision about directors’ disqualification, business names, auditors and actuaries; to amend Part 9 of the Enterprise Act 2002; and for connected purposes.

The date on the right, underneath the long title is the date of enactment when the act went into force. To the left you can check the geographical extent of the law.* Then comes the enacting formula:

 BE IT ENACTED by the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows…

 “Lords Spiritual and Temporal” is obviously a reference to the House of Lords, and the formula basically translates as Queda promulgada por su majestad la Reina la siguiente ley, con la aprobación y la autoridad de la Cámara de los Lores y la Cámara de los Comunes reunidas en el Parlamento. (Spanish laws are also enacted by royal assent –sanción real– in similar terms: Felipe VI, Rey de España, a todos los que la presente vieren y entendieren, Sabed: Que las Cortes Generales han aprobado y Yo vengo en sancionar la siguiente Ley). Older pieces of UK legislation then have a preamble with its “whereas clauses” describing the purpose of the act.

The main body of an act of Parliament is divided into numbered sections with headings summarizing their content. Subsections of sections have numbers in parentheses (called “brackets” in BrE), i.e., (1), (2), etc. Subsections are followed by paragraphs marked (a), (b), etc. Paragraphs may also have subparagraphs designated by small-cap Roman numerals, (i), (ii), (iii), etc. And, finally, an act of Parliament is generally followed by a series of schedules containing definitions, explanations, detailed provisions, amendments and repeals.


*Not all acts of Parliament are applicable throughout the entire UK, as explained here:

Varieties of Legal English in the UK

My students of Legal English often ask me why I label certain British legal terms as “UK” and others as “E&W” (England and Wales). It is important to note that the legal terminology of England and Wales often differs from the terminology of the rest of the UK, especially Scotland, but also sometimes Northern Ireland. England and Wales share the same law, modern Scots law is often described as “hybrid” (having its roots in civil law), and Northern Ireland likewise has its own legal system. Moreover, the laws enacted by the UK Parliament in London are not necessarily applicable throughout the whole United Kingdom. When accessing UK legislation (, one of the “Advanced Features” available under the “Content” tab  says “show geographical extent.” If we check “show geographical extent” for the Companies Act 2006, a small purple banner appears with the message “E+W+S+N.I.,” indicating that this piece of legislation is applicable  throughout the UK. If we do the same for the Civil Procedure Act 1997, the little purple banner says “E+W,” since that law is only applicable in England and Wales.

As examples of just how different English and Scottish legal terms can be, in civil procedure the English “claimant” (demandante—“plaintiff” in the US) is the “pursuer” in Scotland, while the defendant (demandado) is the “defender.” Criminal cases that are prosecuted in England and Wales by a “Crown Prosecutor” (fiscal) are prosecuted in Scotland by a “Procurator Fiscal.” And the English crimes of “manslaughter” (homicidio involuntario), “burglary” (robo con fuerza en las cosas) and “arson” (incendio provocado) are known as “culpable homicide,” “house-breaking” and “fire-raising” north of the Anglo-Scottish border.

Differences in Case Citation in the US and UK

Differences in court case citation in the US and UK (and in other Commonwealth countries) may sometimes be a source of confusion. As an example, in the US a civil action is generally styled “Smith v. Jones,” Smith being the plaintiff (demandante, now known as the claimant in England and Wales) and Jones the defendant (demandado). The case name is read aloud as “Smith versus Jones.” In England that same civil case would be written in the same way (Smith v. Jones), but would be read aloud as “Smith and Jones.”

Criminal cases in the US are easily identified by the fact that the first party, represented by the prosecutor or district attorney (fiscal), is the government, whether federal or state, as in the “United States v. Jones” or the “People of the State of Michigan v. Jones.” Here , as in civil cases, “v.” is also read aloud as “versus.” In England and in other Commonwealth countries criminal cases are prosecuted by the Crown in the name of the monarch, and therefore this same  case would be styled “R v. Jones,” “R” standing for the Latin “Regina” (queen) or “Rex” (king). However, the case name would be read aloud as “The Queen against Jones” (and not “The Queen versus Jones”).

In the US “v.” is sometimes read aloud as “vee,” rather than “versus” (pronouncing “v.” like the letter “v”), although legal linguist Bryan Garner cautions against this practice in his “Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage” (Oxford, 2011).

Read more here:

Legal English in the US and UK: Translating escrito

The term escrito is widely used in Spain to refer to pleadings and other documents that lawyers file in court, and the term “brief” is often used to translate escrito in this context: escrito de demanda (“brief of complaint”), escrito de apelación (“appellate brief”). This translation may actually be appropriate for American audiences since in US usage a brief is simply “a written statement setting out the legal contention of a party in litigation.”* However, it should be noted that “brief” has a very specific meaning in English law that would preclude its being used in this context for UK readers. In effect, in England and Wales “brief” refers specifically to a solicitor’s instructions to a barrister, defined as “a document or bundle of documents by which a solicitor instructs a barrister to appear in court,”** and it can only be appropriately used in that context.

*Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th ed., 2004.

**Oxford Dictionary of Law, 6th ed., 2006.